Picks and Pans Review: The First Man in Rome

updated 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/04/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Colleen McCullough

It took guts for McCullough, best-selling author of The Thorn Birds and other windswept romances, to publish this near 900-page volume. Just how many of her loyal readers, after all, were clamoring for a detailed account of the rise of the low-born Roman Senator, Gaius Marius, in the years 110-100 B.C.? Yet so confident is McCullough of her antiquarian potboiler that she is already at work on the second of a planned five-book series.

The confidence is justified. Though the wily warrior Marius, six times a consul of Rome, provides the brash center of the story, dozens of other characters dance vividly around him in pursuit of love and power, from his admirable wife. Julia (who links him to the yet-to-be-born Julius Caesar) to the betrayed Jugurtha, proud King of Numidia (given a fine dinner the night before, he is tossed into a dark pit and left to die "by inches"), to the quick-witted Lucius Decumius, robber, murderer and custodian of a private men's club.

None is as intriguing, though, as the Senator who stands as counterpoint to Marius, the patrician Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Hiding a life of debauchery, covering his tracks of blood, Sulla also rises, through acts of surprising courage and daunting intellect.

Not only these characters, but the details of ordinary life compel as McCullough painstakingly re-creates a city splintered by private ambition. Part novelist, part historian, she takes time to explain the meaning of the seat assignments at a patrician table, the need for screens around the courtyard of an apartment building, the significance of wax masks of ancestors kept in designated cupboards. Maps and diagrams are sprinkled throughout, and an extensive glossary follows the book—though a series of drawings of the major players, by McCullough herself, are embarrassingly amateurish.

It is easy, though, to forgive the occasional self-indulgence. This is a sweeping, mesmerizing saga that clearly justifies the depth of McCullough's admirable obsession. (Morrow, $22.95)

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